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Resolved 2: What You Need to Write a Great Life Story Part 1

Can you tell your life story in thirty seconds? Probably not. And you probably can’t because you have most likely never thought about your life as a story. You’ve read books. You’ve watched movies. You’ve heard TED Talks or other lectures where the speaker tells you their story.

But most likely you’ve never really focused on yours. And so, when you meet someone at a party or sit next to someone on an airplane and they ask you about yourself, you go to your “go-to” and tell them: your name, whether you’re married or single, where you work, and whether or not you have a dog because if you have a cat you know you’d be more socially acceptable if you just keep that to yourself.

Most of what you share is just some random facts about yourself. Kind of a check-list of the things we think people want to hear when they ask us about ourselves. If you listen to yourself you might find yourself, well, let’s admit it—kind of boring. Nothing like one of those compelling books you read or movies you watched or TED Talk person’s life story you listened to. If they had merely listed some random facts, you would have tossed the book or quit watching or walked out of the lecture.

But what if you and I were on an airplane and somehow our seat selection was not very exact and even though we were traveling together we wound up in the aisle seat and the window seat. Sure enough, some guy comes to our row and gets to sit right between us. He’s very courteous, wants to make sure each of us has plenty of elbow room, and does his best not to step on our toes. He sits down and we ask him about himself and he says: “Well, in a nutshell, I’ve known that I had the ability or power to solve the main problem of this world for some time now. I know where I came from and I know exactly where I’m going. I organize everything I do around this understanding. Want to hear more?”[1]

You and I would be leaning in. Maybe we’d be scratching our heads a bit. We’d certainly want to hear more of this story from someone who seemed to have their life in order. So we ask for more.

Next he tells us: “By the time I’m 33 years old I will have accomplished everything I set out to do.”[2] We give each other knowing looks that say “I can’t even accomplish one day’s worth of ‘to-do’s’ ever. How can he be so certain of this?”

So we ask, “Do you have some sort of mission statement or vision for your life?” Without hesitating he responds, “Sure. Every day I look for ways I can serve other people. I’m not here to have people wait on me. That’s how I find fulfillment in life.”[3]

For the next hour and a half, we hear story after story of how this has played out in his life. We hear how he came from a backwater town, learned a trade from his father, but then left it to start a movement. He goes on to tell how he gathered a small staff of twelve men. As he described these men we wonder why he chose the ones he did. They had no real qualifications. They bickered like brothers. They made big mistakes.

He talks about the opposition he faced and how he wanted his company to know how to handle conflict, how it was going to come and through it things would be learned about people and more importantly about themselves.

We ask more and more questions until the pilot tells us to prepare for landing. We do. And we exit the airplane. The life story we just heard was one we wished we had. Alive. Exciting. Engaging. Purposeful. He walks off in a different direction and for a moment we want to drop our plans and follow him to find out more.

By now you know the story, don’t you? Jesus lived the greatest story ever. His life was captivating, even to people who do not believe as I do that he was the son of God who came to show us what God is like. His life was meant to show us what life is like so that we could emulate him and live better lives.

“I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance” Jesus said (John 10:10). I like to have things in abundance, don’t you? Money? I’ve never met someone who would not take more than what is necessary. “With more we could do more good” we think. House? How many people do you know that start in a smaller home that don’t graduate to something larger that is more than they had before that was enough? Car? You started with the only thing you could afford and at some point had a more abundant amount of money so you upgraded.

We like abundance. But what Jesus is talking about is life. Not the “stuff” of life that we buy and accumulate that can get old and rust and get torn up. The life he is talking about is zoe. It is a life that has to do with quality. For sure zoe life includes the physical things we need in life. But that’s not much of a life by itself. People who have an abundance of “things” can still be miserable. Zoe life includes the spiritual things we need for life that makes our lives alive and vital.

The “abundant life” Jesus talks about is the kind of life that makes a great story. Jesus’ life is a great story and we can learn from it how to write a better story for our lives. Donald Miller writes about life stories in his book “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.” His premise is that there are certain tools storytellers use to write great stories. We can utilize those tools to write good stories for our lives too.

So the first thing you have to buy into before you can live a better life is that you can write a better story. “…[Jesus knew] that he had come from God.” (John 13:3b). Jesus knew where he came from and so do you. The difference is most people live by the past and if something did not happen for them that they thought they needed to happen to have an “abundant life” they quit. If you asked them why they did not achieve “abundant life” they might say they didn’t have the time, the energy, resources, technology, knowledge, the money, or the right manager/mentor. The list can go on and on.

Jesus could have done that. He could have said he came from a small town. His parents were poor. He didn’t have a large network as he stayed in the carpentry shop with his father. He could have talked about all the resources he did not have.

But instead he focused on what he did have. He was resourceful with what he did have. He had a deep spiritual life with God and an unwavering belief that he was here on this earth to do something that would change the world. There was a problem he wanted to be the solution for.

And so he listened to God and he began following that script to write a great story. You and I have to believe that we can do the same. Your story cannot be someone else’s story. But it can be your story. And starting today it can be a better story.

Every story is built around a lead character and other characters.[4] You are the star of your story. That means you have to give it life. Start moving. “Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into his hands…” Jesus knew when it was time to leave the carpentry shop and begin his ministry. His life before was not wasted. He had observed people. He had learned a skill that would be used in his teaching. He had most likely met others along the way that helped him understand people.

When the time was right he began to write. He gathered twelve to be with him. Notice how he did it: he prayed all night.[5] We live in an isolationist culture where our connection is through texts and tweets. But great stories have other characters in them. You can write a better story this year by developing relationships. Do as Jesus did: pray about it. Invite people into relationship. As with Jesus, some will accept the invitations and others won’t. Don’t get bent out of shape with the ones who don’t. It could be that God is leading you to the people you need in your life to live a better story.

That character has to want something. Jesus knew exactly what he wanted. Before his crucifixion he prayed: “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you gave him authority over all flesh, so that he may give eternal life to everyone you have given him. This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent…” (John 17:1-3).

The “glory” Jesus was referring to was his death and resurrection. The reason he asked to be glorified was so that God could be glorified. That was what he wanted. And he wanted to give eternal life to us. His life was clear on that. And because he knew what he wanted, his life was organized around achieving what he wanted.

When we are not experiencing a better life as Jesus came to give it is because we have not decided what it is we want. We may want material things. And we may get them. But we won’t have the better life. It comes when we decide that what we want is the eternal life Jesus offers. What we want needs to be good and it needs to glorify God, not us.

In the pursuit of what we want, every character must go through conflict. Characters, and character, does not form in us without conflict. Here’s an example. We watch the show Designated Survivor. The main character is a low-level Cabinet member named Thomas Kirkman who becomes President of the United States after a catastrophic attack kills everyone above him in the line of succession.[6] That was enough conflict for anyone to deal with and yet he faces new conflicts in each episode and through them he grows in his understanding of and ability to be President.

Jesus begins his ministry and immediately finds conflict in the wilderness and the temptations by Satan. Through it his character is strengthened as well as his resolve. You and I need conflict in our stories to live better stories. Want to lose some weight this year? It won’t come without conflict with some weights or walks or runs at night. Want to grow in your relationships? It won’t come without some hard talks and lengthy listening. Conflict moves our stories along.

And finally, stories must resolve. “[Jesus knew] … that he was going back to God.” Jesus knew where he was going. His beginning, his passion for what he wanted, and the conflict he endured all resolved when he ascended into heaven. He used his authority that was given to him to write a story that had room for you and me.

Our stories will resolve one day too. How do you want your big story to resolve on your last day? Before then and along the way, we have mini-episodes that resolve. You wanted to lose 10 pounds and you set as a goal to run in a 5K by a certain time and you did. Better yet, you wanted to let go of anger so you got some counseling—which surfaced some internal conflict—and you have found yourself more calm.

Want to write a better life story this year? You can. Find some space to answer these questions:

  • What is keeping me from being the lead character in my story?
  • Who does God want me to gather around me as other characters in my story?
  • What is it I really want? And is it something God would want? What problem is it that I want my life to be about creating a solution for?
  • What conflict will I need to go through to get where I’m going?
  • What picture can I imagine of how my story will resolve? (You may want to envision some of the mini-episodes along the way.)

Write those down. Reflect on your answers. Pray over them. Then the next time someone asks you who you are, you can give them a pretty good idea in thirty seconds. I might say something like: “When I was younger I loved to think about God and had questions about God so I went to a university where I could study the Bible. Since then, I’ve had teenagers through adults ask me about God and whether we could get to know him, so I’ve been studying that all my life to try to help.” That might get a better response than “I’m a pastor.” Which usually ends the conversation right there.

You can tell your story in a way that gets a conversation going. So start writing. Write one page a day. And don’t stop until the story is over.

[1] John 13:3 paraphrase

[2] John 17:4 paraphrase

[3] Mark 10:45 paraphrase

[4] Ingredients to good stories can be found at http://storylineblog.com/2012/03/06/how-to-tell-a-good-story-with-your-life/

[5] Luke 6:12.

[6] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5296406/

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Resolved 1: Tiny Steps to a Better You

Another New Year. And you probably fall into one of two categories. Category 1 are those who want to review their lives and set resolutions of how they will do better this year than years past. Category 2 are those who have reviewed their lives, set resolutions, and resolve this year to not even try.

About 80% of New Year’s Resolutions fail by February.[1] February! It only takes four weeks for those who set new goals for a new year to bail on them. Why are you people so bad at having the resolve to meet your resolutions?

One answer comes from Peter Herman, a Psychology professor, who talks about the “false hope syndrome.” According to Herman, this syndrome occurs when a person makes a resolution that is unrealistic and is not in line with that person’s internal view of themselves. In other words, you can make all the resolutions you want about being a success in the New Year, but it won’t be attainable if inside your self-talk says you are a failure. He says it not only does not work, it is damaging to your self-worth.[2]

What is needed for making resolutions work is changed behaviors—and in order to change a behavior, you have to change your thinking. You can’t be transformed until your mind is reformed.

That’s what the Scriptures say. “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind” says Paul in Romans 12:2. The word “transformed” in the Greek is the word “metamorphoō” from which we get our word “metamorphosis.” Shortened we get “morph.”

When our sons were little they could not wait each day until their favorite show came on. It told of some average teenage boys and girls who would turn into super heroes with special powers. They changed from one thing into another. And all it took was the utterance of one phrase. Say it with me: “It’s Morphin’ Time!” They turned into The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could become the person we want to be by only saying “It’s Morphin’ Time!”? I hate to break it to you but that’s not how it happens. “Morphing” happens, according to God’s Word, by a renewing of the way we think. It takes “anakainōsis.” That’s another great Greek word that can also be translated “renovation.”

You understand that word. If you’ve watched Chip and Joanna on Fixer Upper or any other home renovation show, you can grasp what Paul is saying. Your mind is like a house. There are some good, sturdy beams in it that are solid and can support your life. But there are cracks too. Cracks in your ideas about reality. Fault lines in your basic images of God and life.

When we hold those ideas and images from our mind up and take a long look at them in light of God and his truth, some things need to go and be replaced by something new. Imagine Chip Gaines getting to do a Demo-Day in your head and then Joanna coming in after and sprucing things up a bit. There’s sure to be some shiplap applied somewhere.

That’s what you and I need to be able to become better people this year. We need resolutions that fall in line with how we think. And when those two match up, transformation can happen. Before outside change can take place, then, inside change has to happen.

If the inside change does not happen, especially when you are wanting to be like Jesus, bad things happen. As Peter Herman said, it can be damaging. What happens to us is that we experience not real transformation but pseudo-transformation. In other words, we aren’t becoming like Jesus—more kind, patient, loving, etc.—so we settle for something else. That something else, says scholar James Dunn, is boundary markers.

The first century rabbis talked a lot about three boundary markers: dietary laws, Sabbath keeping, and circumcision. In many cases their hearts had not changed—as we see when Jesus confronts the leaders—so they used these boundary markers to decide who was in and who was not.

We have them today. Take bikers for instance. What is their favorite mode of transportation? A Harley. What is their favorite color? Black. What is a biker’s favorite type of woman? A biker chic.[3] It’s a way of knowing who’s in the group and who is not.

When real change doesn’t happen in us we look for boundary markers outside us to make us feel better about ourselves. Christians do this all the time. Real change isn’t happening so they come up with silly boundary markers of who is in and who is out: music, clothing, to drink or not to drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with … You get the idea. And people even jump from one church to the other in search of the one that appears to have it all together when the real problem is they haven’t changed. Changing location won’t help that.

Neither will trying. And that’s what’s wrong with most resolutions. People say they will try to change: try to lose weight, try to get in shape, try to read more, try to (fill in the blank). Those of us who are Christians do the same: try to read more Bible, try to attend more often, try to be better. We try but really do little if nothing. Trying won’t help.

But training will. There is a big difference between training and trying. Paul says, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8, NLT). The word for “training” is the word “gymnasia.” We get our word “gymnasium” from it. A gymnasium is a place where training takes place.

Training is simply what we do when we arrange our life around certain activities that allow us to do at some point in the future what right now we can’t. For instance, when I was younger, I decided I wanted to build some muscle. I went to a gym. I was a little intimidated at first. There were people there with arms as big as my legs. Legs as big as my waist. Hair all over their bodies. That was just some of the women.

I started out on the bench press where I could, which was not more than the bar itself. But over time I was able to add big five pound plates on each end. People applauded.

If you want to be a better you this year, you need to start with your thinking. And one of the first things you need to think about is the kind of training you will enter. Eliminate the word “try” from your thinking and your vocabulary. As one wise sage has said: “Do or do not. There is no try!”[4]

Then think about the training exercises you need. I want to give you three that will help you train to be like Jesus. The first is Mind Renewal. Sometimes we call this “personal reflection” or “quiet time.” But Mind Renewal gets to what Paul had in mind. It’s not just something to check off a list. Remember, if you are going to see real change, you have to train to change your thinking. And the best way to get your mind thinking like Jesus is to spend time in the Word. That’s where Jesus said his disciples would be: “If you continue in my word, you really are my disciples” (John 8:31).

When you train in the Word you bring all of what you know about yourself to all of what you know about God. You read scripture, not looking for a rule or a boundary marker, but for who God is and what the experience in the Word tells you about yourself.

For instance, you read in Matthew 6 that you are not to get angry with a brother or sister (Matt. 6:22). You realize that you do get angry. You know that about yourself. You also know that there is “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). You know that about God. Instead of beating yourself up about it since God isn’t, you ask God to reveal to you why you have an angry spirit inside of you.

Maybe he reveals something that happened to you in your past. You find something in your thinking about that event that has caused you to live an angry life. And that anger gets triggered when a brother or sister does or says something to you.

You’ll be able to connect something in the past that affects your behavior in the present. And you’ll look ahead to the person you want to be. Remember, training is to allow you to do something in the future that right now you cannot do. That kind of quiet time will change you. But not by itself.

You also need some Training Partners. There’s a strategy behind Jesus calling the Twelve (Luke 6:12ff). There’s a reason he sent them out by “twos” (Luke 10:1). There’s a reason he said is disciples were those who loved each other (John 13:35). We are made for community. The likeness that God created us in— “male and female”—is about relationship. The Father, Son and Spirit live in perfect relationship.

He wants us to live in relationship too. That’s what it means to be human. Jesus is our model of a human and he lived in relationship. We’re designed to have a place where we belong and where we can be our authentic selves. A place where we can share all that we know about ourselves and God.

In biblical community we find grace and truth. Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Imagine you are training to be a top flight golfer. There is a hitch in your swing. But you can’t see it and the hitch is hurting your goals. You’d want a coach who was willing to tell you the truth about your swing, but do it in a helpful way, wouldn’t you?

In life training we need the same. We don’t always see the destructive patterns in our lives. We don’t always hear the negative self-talk. We don’t always know what to make of what we discover in our Mind Renewal moments. But others can help us. We need Training Partners if we want to see change.

We can experience mind renewal. We can receive coaching from training partners. But it will all be wasted if we do not practice Radical Obedience. We have to step into the vision of who we want to be. Jesus said “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” The word “keep” means to “observe” or “obey.”

Training is not an instant process. Your coach tells you to make a change in your stance to help your swing. At first the new stance does not feel natural. You find yourself resorting to your old stance. But over time the adjustment is made and you start hitting the ball straighter and further. You believed your coach knew what he was talking about so you did what he taught you.

The same is true with Jesus. We trust what he says about life and we observe his teaching, we keep his word. So for example, when he says anger is destructive for us we let him show us where our anger is coming from and we train to obey him in becoming calm people. What he coaches us to do comes out in our life. It’s proof we are his disciples (John 15:8).

Transformation begins in the mind, is encouraged by a community of grace and truth, and is experienced when we are radically obedient. But it all starts with the thinking. Dallas Willard reminds us that “The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow our minds to dwell upon.”[5]

God has a desire to see you be the best you you can be. He’s given you a path to get there: a renewing of the mind with some training partners who will help you be obedient. It’s called the church. With a training regimen in place you might live into your New Year’s Resolutions past February.

[1] Kelsey Mulvey, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February—here’s how to keep yours from http://www.businessinsider.com/new-years-resolutions-courses-2016-12

[2] Ray Williams, Why People Can’t Keep Their New Year’s Resolutions: Making resolutions have such a high failure rate, Posted Dec 30, 2014https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201412/why-people-cant-keep-their-new-years-resolutions

[3] See John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted for this illustration.

[4] Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back.

[5] http://dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=120

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The God Who Invented Christmas 5: How Christmas Transforms Everything

Take a cardboard tube. Wrap it in bright colored paper. Twist the paper at both ends. Nothing much by itself. But put a surprise inside and it becomes a Christmas tradition.

We want to know what’s inside, don’t we? Inside the Christmas Cracker. Inside the Christmas present. Children will have trouble sleeping tonight wondering what is inside the boxes already around the tree. Not to mention that ones that Santa will bring tonight.

We want to know what’s inside. And you’re probably wondering what’s inside this box too, aren’t you? (Big wrapped box on the stage)

Joseph and Mary had some questions too. Not about what was in a box. But what was inside Mary. “It was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant…” (Matthew 1:18). Joseph had been a good fiancée. He had been taking cold showers, waiting for their wedding night to consummate their relationship. So when Mary’s midsection began to expand, Joseph’s mind began to explode.

That’s why the angel showed up. He told Joseph in a dream that inside Mary was a child conceived by the Holy Spirit. His name was to be Jesus because he would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The prophet Isaiah had given him another nameImmanuel—or “God with us” (Isa 7:4).

Something wonderful was inside Mary—Jesus. As with any baby waiting in the womb, parents are eager to see what comes out. Will the child favor the mothers side or the fathers side? Or maybe an alien. The waiting is not unlike waiting for Christmas. In this case 9 months in the latter 12.

But once the waiting is over it is time for what is inside to come out. On that Christmas night this great gift to the world was opened for all to see. The shepherds were the first. The multitude of angels who filled the sky with praise next. Then Wise Men would come and worship.

We want to know what’s inside. Jesus was inside Mary. And here’s a Christmas announcement for you. Jesus can be inside you. The best in Mary can bring out the best in you.

When John wrote about the coming of Christ he uses words like “light” to describe him. Jesus was a light that shined in the darkness of our world. Our world needs light. Our world needs our best.

Charles Dickens believed his world needed some light. Too much poverty. Horrible working conditions. He wanted to bring out the best in people so he attempted to do so with his story, A Christmas Carol. In it we watch the transformation of Scrooge from a miser to a benefactor of the poor.

There was something better inside Scrooge all along. It just had to come out. It took him looking at the events of his past that had shaped him. It took him becoming aware of his present actions to get honest about his behavior. It took him peering into the future to see what could be. It took a process for him to become the best him he could be.

That’s the best gift of Christmas. You see, Jesus was born in Mary so that he could be born in us. The Apostle Paul liked to remind the church that’s where Jesus is. In us. He called it a mystery. Something that can’t be seen, like what’s inside a Christmas Cracker or a Christmas present. But it has been made known, and that mystery he says is this: “… Christ in you” (Col. 1:27).

It was a mystery to Joseph how the Holy Spirit placed Jesus in Mary. And it’s a mystery how the Holy Spirit places Jesus in us. But he does. And with any birth, there is a time for what is being formed in us to come out for others to see.

What do others see in you this Christmas? Do they see Jesus? Do they see the best you there is? Or do they see the worst? A birth does not happen overnight and neither does transformation.

  • We have to let Jesus walk us through our past. Our sin. The sin of others in our lives. And how that has shaped us in ways that caused us to live below our best.
  • We have to let Jesus speak to us about our present behavior, our actions, our feelings and what that tells us about our best and worst self.
  • And we have to let Jesus reveal to us a vision of our future. Where we will end up if our path does not change. Where we would like to end up if we do change. And show us the gap between that future “you” and the one you see in the mirror this Christmas Eve.

Wouldn’t you like to see what is inside…you…this Christmas? If Christ is to come out of you he has to first be in you. You have to ask him in. Once there, he can help you get rid of the things that should not be there. Things like immorality, impurity, hatred, anger, selfishness. Then he’ll replace them with things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Wouldn’t you like to open yourself up and find the best you inside? It starts with asking Jesus inside. Let’s do that right now. If you want Jesus inside you, just say this prayer with me:

Dear Father, I want what was born in Mary to be born in me.

I want Jesus in me.

I want his love. His peace. His character.

And I want the Jesus who came out of Mary into the world to come out of me into my world.

To be a person of love. A person of light. A person with life.

This is my Christmas prayer, in the name of Jesus. Amen.

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The God Who Invented Christmas 4: Don’t Fear your Christmas Future

It may be too late to find this game for this year’s Christmas, but you may want to put it on your list for next. It’s a game called “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game.” Imagine moving a game piece around the board when you get the right answer to questions like:

  • How do you fend off a shark? Punch its eyes and gills, the sensitive parts of its body.
  • How would you escape a forest fire? Dig a hole in the side, cover the opening with a tarp or blanket, and then crawl into the hole. Alternatively, dig a trench and lie down in it with your feet facing the direction of the flames, and cover yourself with dirt. Make sure you can breathe, and wait for the fire to travel over you.
  • What would you do if you had to land an airplane? Make a Mayday call and someone will guide you from there. Autopilot will take you most of the way. But you’ll have to take the controls to land. And when you do, you’ll be a hero.

One reviewer said the game was his worst case scenario and that we should save our money.[1] Worse case scenarios. Some of us dream them up constantly. “What ifs” fall around us as smoothly as snow on a Denver Christmas morning. Instead of looking forward to the time in the water, the camping trip, or the airplane flight, we wonder “what if?” We can’t enjoy today because of our fear of what might happen tomorrow.

For the past four years Chapman University in California has surveyed the American public to find what we are most afraid of. Zombies did not make the top ten for 2017, but these did:[2]

  1. Air pollution. (44.9 percent)
  2. North Korea using weapons. (47.5 percent)
  3. Global warming and climate change. (48 percent)
  4. The U.S. will be involved in another World War. (48.4 percent)
  5. High medical bills. (48.4 percent)
  6. Not having enough money in the future. 50.2%
  7. Pollution of drinking water. 50.4%
  8. Pollution of oceans, rivers, and lakes (53.1 percent)
  9. American Healthcare Act (55.3 percent)
  10. Corruption of government officials (74.5 percent)

It’s no wonder that Scrooge’s last ghost visitor wore black. The Ghost of Christmas Future’s face is unseen. Only an outstretched hand is visible. He shows Scrooge the future where people are glad that someone has passed on. He then finds the deceased man is himself. Upon seeing his own tombstone, he pleads with the ghost to give him a chance to “sponge away the writing on this stone.”

Does the future terrify you? Whether it’s the fear of war, lack of money, government officials, or even your own mortality, you have most likely felt the terror that Scrooge felt when shown his possible future (4.64-78).

You’re not alone. Jesus knows the feeling. Surprised? Let me show you when it happened. To do so, we have to visit the Garden of Gethsemane, just hours before Jesus will experience the cross. Mark writes: “He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). The word for “distressed” is the Greek word ekthambeō. It means “to throw into terror” or “to alarm thoroughly, to terrify.”

We know what would terrify us: corrupt government officials. What could possibly terrify Jesus? We find the answer in his prayer to the Father. “And he said, “Abba, Father! All things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me” (Mark 14:36).

Most likely you will have some special cups from which to drink at your Christmas dinner. But biblically, “cup” means something else. Throughout scripture it refers to God’s judgment, his anger, and punishment.

When John wrote the book of Revelation, he pulled back the veil so we could see the future too. There he shows us that those who reject God and live life without him “…will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, which is poured full strength into the cup of his anger” (Revelation 14:10).

Ask John what the worst case scenario is and he would define it as facing death without Christ. And for Jesus, it was enduring this “cup” himself. He had always been one with the Father. He deserved no judgment as he was perfectly obedient, “even to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). He had never experienced physical death: he was immortal from the beginning of time.

Jesus was born on that Christmas Day for this very purpose, that is, to drink the cup that was ours to drink so that we would not have to. “She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

And he was born on that Christmas day so that we could watch him live this life and learn from him how to live ours. “Disciple” means a “learner.” We are to learn to live the life Jesus would live if he were in our shoes in our family, in our workplace, in our neighborhood.

The Apostle Paul understood that. In 1 Corinthians 11:1 he instructs the church to “Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ.” How did Paul know what to do in Corinth, a place that Jesus never traveled to? How did Paul know how to handle the experience of a jail cell in Philippi, something Jesus had not exactly done?

He had learned to imitate him. And we can do the same. When Jesus faced the fear of his immediate future, what did he do? He prayed.

When I face the fear of my future, what do I do? Sometimes I panic instead of pray. Other days I feel a low hum of anxiety. I may not fear a shark—I just stay out of the water. I may not have anxieties about a forest fire—I don’t do much camping. But I do at times worry about not having enough in my old age. Worse yet, I can grow concerned about passing away first and not leaving enough for Karen. It’s easy to worry, to grow anxious, or to panic.  Those come naturally. We have to learn to pray. And to learn to pray we need to watch Jesus when he is struck with “terror.”

He prayed three times about the cup. Jesus faced his worst-case scenario with prayer. It would be best for us to find the basics of his prayer instead of memorizing this exact one. Our situation will be different than the “cup” he was about to experience. But the core of his prayer can be ours.

He addresses God as “Abba” (Mark 14:36). It was the word a child would use for their father. It was close and intimate. It was like the word “Papa” I used to refer to my grandfather. He’d take me driving through the northeast Arkansas hills. At some point he’d tell me I could climb in his lap and drive. I’d put my hands on the steering wheel. I could barely see over the dash but I drove that truck without even putting my feet on the gas pedal. There was no fear when I drove my Papa’s truck because I was in his lap.

“Abba” conveys the same sort of fearless confidence of a child climbing into the lap of her Father who is in control. So we pray, “Abba.”

Then he makes an honest request. “…if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). Name what it is that frightens you. Here’s a secret you may not be aware of: God already knows. And he can do more for you when you acknowledge that you know too.

Are you fearful of the economy? Tell him. Your health? Tell him. What will happen to your family? Tell him. And ask him, if possible, to take it away.

If there had been another way for Jesus to take away the sin of the world and the death that comes with sin, Jesus wanted that to happen. Physical death is one thing. Crucifixion is something else. It is enough to terrify anyone. It’s OK to tell the Father what you are afraid of. When fears are exposed they can be deposed.

But then notice what Jesus does at the end of his prayer. He verbalizes his trust in God.  “Nevertheless, not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). God does not will evil in our lives. But he does will that our character is transformed into the character of Christ. What was born into the world on that Christmas Day he wants to be born in us. Paul would tell his friends in Galatia “I am again suffering labor pains for you until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).

Jesus trusted that whatever happened to him God would work his will in him.

During a season of stress I was experiencing which brought with it plenty of fear of the future, my brother suggested a book to me. It was not the Bible. He’s a psychologist. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he expected that I had a copy or two.

The book he suggested is called Love is Letting Go of Fear by Gerald G. Jampolsky. In it he talks about a book he had read that said there were only two emotions in this life: love and fear. Love is our natural inheritance and fear is something our mind manufactures.

What I remember helping me the most in his book, however, is the idea of asking the question: what is the worst thing that can happen? If you’re going to ask the question, his approach is life-giving rather than fear-inducing.

I’ve learned to ask that question. For instance, what if I lose my paycheck? I’d have to find some other work. What if it doesn’t pay as much as before? I’d have to cut expenses. What if I couldn’t afford extras? I’d have to live even more simply.

You go down the list until you eventually come to the question: what if I die? And that is where Jesus makes all the difference. If you and I can answer that worst-case scenario with the words of Paul— “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)—you don’t have to fear your Christmas future.

Of that I’m confident.

Now about those corrupt government officials…

 

 

[1] http://www.alwaysboardneverboring.com/2012/06/worst-case-scenario-survival-game.html

[2] https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-americans-are-most-scared-of-in-2017-and-no-it-s-not-spiders

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The God Who Invented Christmas 3: Discover Peace for your Christmas Present

Here’s another Christmas joke for you. Do you know why Christmas is the time people forget about the past and don’t worry about the future? Answer: “Because they’re all focused on the present.”

The present can present itself with enough anxieties, can’t it? Like putting up the Christmas lights on the house. “In November and December of [2014], an estimated 13,000 people were treated in emergency rooms around the country for injuries tied to holiday lights, Christmas trees, ornaments and other decorations…”[1]

I can relate. When we moved to Tomball from Tyler, we moved from a one-story house with a low-pitch on the roof to a two-story house with a high-pitch on the roof. But lights for our first Christmas was a must.

Our ladder barely reached the first roof level. I climbed up and, with my best James Bond impersonation, leapt from the last rung to the roof. As soon as I landed, Karen and the boys erupted in great applause. I stood to take a bow and instead took a slide. I looked like Jose Altuve coming into second base on a steal.

I clawed my fingers into the shingles and stopped just before my shoes met the gutter. I crawled my way back up, slowly hanging the string of lights along the roof line. With every move I made I could feel myself sliding a little more. Two crawls up, one slide back.

Within fifteen minutes my nerves were shot. When Karen asked me if my life insurance was paid up, I decided it was time to return to terra firma. I had nothing to hold onto. And my anxiety meter was moving off the charts.

Apparently that feeling is the norm in our anxiety producing world. In his book Anxious for Nothing, Max Lucado lists these statistics about anxiety: “Anxiety disorders in the United States are the ‘number one mental health problem among…women and are second only to alcohol and drug abuse among men.’”[2]

The United States is the most anxious nation in the world.[3] In fact, it’s dangerous for a foreigner to move here. When people from less developed nations move here they become just as anxious as us. And the average child today is showing the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950’s.[4]

If you weren’t anxious before you heard this today, you probably are now. The present presents us with these presents: change—more in the last 30 years than the previous 300 and speed—from our cars, to planes, to the internet that brings news to us constantly, mostly bad. It’s as if we are losing our grip and need something solid to hold onto.

We need peace. Into our anxious world the angels bring this announcement: “Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!” (Luke 2:13-14).

Ever wonder what Mary and Joseph thought about that declaration? They’re poor. Birthing a baby in a borrowed barn. Gossiped about. Joseph wondering how he will afford to raise this child. Mary concerned about the cleanliness of her baby’s crib.

No one needed to remind them of their present problems. And no one needs to remind you of yours. Scrooge, however, did. The ghost of Christmas present takes him on a tour of Christmas day in London. He sees the people’s cheer against his own misery. He observes the poverty of the Cratchits and the declining health of their Tiny Tim. He sees starving children called Ignorance and Want.

Scrooge sees enough to be anxious. Anxious about the direction of his own life. Anxious about what will happen to Tiny Tim. Anxious about what to do with Ignorance and Want.

You’ve seen enough too. And yet “peace” has been proclaimed at Jesus’ birth. Later, Jesus would proclaimed peace to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat; or about the body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: They don’t sow or reap; they don’t have a storeroom or a barn; yet God feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than the birds? Can any of you add one moment to his life-span by worrying? If then you’re not able to do even a little thing, why worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:22-26).

Jesus’ prescription for peace in the present? Look at the birds. And look at where worry gets you. I read his saying as a quick cadence of all the things we can start thinking about that create anxiety: will I have enough food? What will we wear? Matthew adds “What will I drink?” We worry about all the basic things of life and yet the birds don’t. And last I checked, they’re doing OK.

And I do check. We have a couple of cardinals and blue jays that bless us with their presence most days. We watch them in all their beauty. And I take Jesus to heart. I think, “Now those birds are not worried about anything. They take the water we have in our bird bath for them. They find food wherever it is available. They enjoy our trees until the stupid squirrel comes out and chases them away. And then I think about the squirrel. “He’s got a pretty easy life, that is, until he decides to cross a street. Then all bets are off.”

Then I get anxious again. We have not been at peace since the Garden. And yet as Jesus enters his Garden he says: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t let your heart be troubled or fearful” (John 14:27). Jesus said this on the night before he died on the cross. His peace is a different kind of peace. The peace of the world is defined as absence of conflict. When warring nations end their battles we say they are “at peace with each other.”

Jesus’ peace is something different. The peace of Jesus is defined as when things are operating as God created them to operate. It is a peace that can be experienced regardless of outside circumstances.

The Apostle Paul experienced this peace. He said he had learned to be content in any circumstance. He could sing even when chained in a Roman jail. He took up this theme when he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).

I hear what you’re thinking. “Be anxious for nothing? But I do get anxious. How can I not get anxious?” And if that’s creating some anxiety in you, let me help. The way Paul constructs his usage of this word means to not be “perpetually anxious.”

There are two kinds of anxiety we deal with. One is acute anxiety. When your child runs out to the street and you see a car barreling down the road, that feeling you get is acute anxiety. It’s good to have.

The second kind of anxiety is chronic anxiety. This is the one Paul is talking about. It is a low hum that is always just below the surface. You feel it. Even when things are going well you still feel like something is going to happen. It’s hard to celebrate good news. You don’t laugh as much as you once did. You’d be fine moving to a deserted island and not interacting with people ever again.

If I just described you, then Paul’s words are for you. In them he gives us his prescription for peace. First he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always…the Lord is near.” Instead of seeing the sources of your anxiety, see God. Remember how Jesus promised his disciples that he would always be with them (Matthew 28:20)? Here, Paul reminds them of that. “The Lord is near.”

How many times must Paul have reassured himself with this declaration? When he received the 39 lashes. When he was struck with rods. The time he was stoned. Shipwrecked, in danger, hungry and thirsty (2 Cor. 11:16-33). What Paul had learned was that real peace is not found in the external circumstances. It is found in the inner being. With Jesus near we can rejoice.

Then he tells us to offer “prayer and petition with thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving does something for us. It helps us see the Good. In my moments of anxiety, I will think back through my life. I can see where God took care of us in times that looks a bit shaky. How he led us through hard seasons. How he provided for us when things looked tight financially.

Thanksgiving helps us see the good of what God has done so far in our lives. In counseling we have a saying that the “past behavior is a strong indicator of future behavior.” If God has been so good already, why would we doubt his care for our future? That’s where the worry is, isn’t it? Usually it is about things that have not yet happened. And most never will.

A study actually supports this thinking.

“…Subjects were asked to write down their worries over an extended period of time and then identify which of their imagined misfortunes did not actually happen. Lo and behold, it turns out that 85 percent of what subjects worried about never happened, and with the 15 percent that did happen, 79 percent of subjects discovered either they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or the difficulty taught them a lesson worth learning. This means that 97 percent of what you worry over is not much more than a fearful mind punishing you with exaggerations and misperceptions.”[5]

Instead of worrying, be thankful. And then “present your requests to God.” If you do have something that troubles you, see the Giver. Remember the birds? God takes care of them. He’ll take care of you. Take your requests to him. He’ll give you what you need.

Be specific too. If you have a meeting you are worried about, tell him: “Lord, I have a meeting at 2 pm tomorrow. I’m not sure exactly how to lead it well. It could be contentious. Will you go before me and prepare the way for me, then guide me during the meeting?” Seeing the Give will help lighten your load.

And, according to Paul, it will bring you peace. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” It’s not a peace you can understand. You won’t. You and I can be hit with one trouble after the next and yet we are not anxious. Worried? Should be, but not. Upset? Should be, but not.

The only way to explain it is that is it the “peace of God.” Not “from” God, “of” God. And that peace will “guard your heart and minds in Christ Jesus.” The word “guard” means to “protect by a military guard, to prevent hostile invasion.”[6]

Maybe you want that peace today for your Christmas present. But so far it has alluded you. May I ask: Have you seen God, seen the Good, and seen the Giver. If not, practice what Paul has said to do. Practice what Jesus has said to do: spend some time with the birds and the flowers.

A fortress of a wall will be built up around your heart and your mind. When the enemy sends his ghosts to haunt you, it will have no opportunity to invade your peaceful place.

You’ll have something to hold onto. The Lord, who is near.

[1] https://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2015/12/03/dont-fall-for-christmas-lights-illuminating-safety-in-holiday-decorating

[2] Quoted in Max Lucado, Anxious for Nothing (p.5)

[3] Ibid, 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/don-joseph-goewey-/85-of-what-we-worry-about_b_8028368.html

[6] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5432&t=ESV

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The God Who Invented Christmas 1: Scrooge-Proof Your Christmas

He had just finished speaking to the members of the Manchester Athenaeum (A-tha-nee-um). He had witnessed the harsh conditions of the manufacturing workers in their city. Along with scenes he had recently observed at the Field Lane Ragged School, he was determined to bring light into the darkened world of the poor.

At the school—one of a number of free public schools—he saw young boys and girls he would describe as the embodiment of “profound ignorance and perfect barbarism.”[1] The children were illiterate, filthy, and dressed in rags. A companion of his was so overwhelmed by the smell of the place that he turned and ran out. 57% of children born to working class children in Manchester died before they reached the age of five.

On top of that dire statistic, the workers in the mills were experiencing a 15 to 20 percent unemployment rate. Their wages had dropped a similar amount in the past ten years. The invention of the power loom had left many without jobs. The poor were thought of as almost an entirely different race. In a movie depicting his life, a heartless businessman tells him that the poor should hurry up and die so as to “decrease the surplus population.”[2] Manchester was described as a hellhole.[3]

He wanted to do something for the cause of the poor. And he thought the time of the year to do it would be Christmas, which at the time was a minor holiday and not what we know today.  And so, after his speech to the library members in which they envisioned a place where anyone could come and learn and better their lives, he walked the dark city streets with his mind formulating what would become his most famous work of fiction.

In 1843 Charles Dickens wanted to revive his writing career and at the same time revive the spirit of Christmas.  The book and movie of the same title—The Man Who Invented Christmas—tells the story behind the story of A Christmas Carol. Dickens observed people living in dark times. He had lived them as a child. And he wanted to birth a story that would bring light to those dark places.

Your world might need some light today. And your Christmas might need a facelift as well. Dickens’ world had become dark because people cared little for others. People were like Ebenezer Scrooge who had made his money but cared little if anything for anyone else. What was his was his. What he wanted, he got.

The Christmas season can surface some Scrooge in all of us. Snarled traffic can snarl our lips. Shaky economy makes us horde what we have. We “want” more than “give.” At an early age we learn to make our “wish list” for Christmas. Were we ever taught to create a “give list?”

Before we know it we can be a bit like Scrooge. He was a miser. And that’s only one letter away from misery. How can we keep the holiday season with its crowded malls and decked out halls from making us miserable?

The answer lies in another story, the story behind the story of Christmas. The God who invented Christmas wanted to send light into a dark world too. His plot was to revive the world with Christmas.

You’ve heard the story. The Scrooge in this story is King Herod. He was hard-hearted. He was jealous of the joy the announcement of a newborn king had brought to the land. He was mean enough to kill off some of his own family members. He was tight-fisted, wanting to hold onto his own kingdom instead of embracing this gift of God. There was room in his world for only one king, and he was the one sitting on the throne.

In Dickens’ story, Bob Cratchit is a contrast to Scrooge. Although poor, he celebrated what he already had. A job. A family. And especially a son, Tiny Tim. And in God’s story, the wise men are a contrast to Herod. We don’t know much about them. We’re not sure how many there were. We like to say there were three because of the three gifts given.

What we do know is they were looking for something. They were astronomers—students of the stars. When they saw a new star in the sky they followed it right to Herod’s doorstep and asked: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2).

Their question did not set well with Herod. He became “deeply disturbed.” His inner disturbance resulted in an outer city wide disturbance through Jerusalem. “All Jerusalem” was upset along with him. Not because of the wise men or prophecy. They were agitated because of what Herod might do.

What Herod did was send the wise men on a search mission so he could destroy the child. His chief priests and scribes knew the birthplace: “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him, “because this is what was written by the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah: Because out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Herod was not content with what he had. But the wise men were. They went to see the child who by now was in a house. They did not ask for anything. They gave him no petition. They left no note saying, “When you grow up, will you grant us this one favor?”

They only left him with gold, frankincense and myrrh, all of which would be helpful when his family had to flee Herod and take a trip to Egypt. They also gave him their worship. “Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11).

With whom do you better relate in the holiday season? Scrooge or Bob Cratchit? Herod or the Wise Men? Which heart is most like yours? Difficult times can make us more like Herod. We hold tight to what we have because we fear we won’t have enough. And it’s been a difficult year. Harvey hit us hard. Some have lost days of work. Some lost jobs. It would be easy to withdraw into a hard outer shell to keep the harsh world at bay.

But let’s not. The season of Advent is a season for preparing for Christ. It is a perfect time to practice generosity instead of miser-osity. Generosity is not natural. It has to be cultivated. How quickly do children open their presents—gifts given to them that they could not buy themselves—before they utter the words “my” and “mine”?

Those who have come to know the story behind Christmas, however, behave differently. Let’s Scrooge-proof our Christmas. And here’s how.

First, don’t spend what you don’t have. How often does the rush of buying presents for your family and others in December turn into the reality of the credit card bill in January? The Bible says: “Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another…” (Romans 10:8).

Second, live beneath your means. When we try to live a lifestyle we cannot support financially, we are heading for trouble. Charles Dickens’ father did and wound up in debtor’s prison. It forced Charles at the age of 12 to work hard 10-hour days. You don’t have to have a lot of money to be greedy. Greed is living over your means. So as Dave Ramsey likes to say: “Act your wage.”

And then follow this third piece of biblical advice: cultivate generosity. Generosity is not something we fall to naturally. Did you know the average American gives 2.1% of their wages to some form of charity?[4] That means for every $100 a person makes they give $2.

You can decide for yourself whether that reflects Jesus’ teaching when he said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”[5] Jesus wanted to teach us to have a generous spirit. Instead of a lecture, he gave us a story found in Luke 12.

There he tells of a rich man who was very prosperous. He’d be the guy today on the business news segment telling us how to handle our money. He’d be the guy at the Marriott conference center sharing his secrets with you in exchange for a $499 admission fee.

And what does he do with all his riches? He rents out more mini-storage units for all his stuff. Listen closely to his words: “He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there. Then I’ll say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.” (Luke 12:17-19).

Did you hear it? “I, I, my, I, I’ll, my, my, my, I’ll, myself.” His favorite subject is himself. He even talks to himself. And worse, he doesn’t talk to God.

But God talks to him. “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared ​— ​whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). No ghosts on Christmas Eve in this story. The man hears straight from God himself. And in case his listeners missed the point of the story, Jesus ends with these words: “That’s how it is with the one who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

Jesus is not against savings. He is not against retirement funds. And he’s not against wealth. The problem is the man, like Scrooge, has merely sat back and counted his money. He never asked God—the one who gave him the ability to make his wealth—what he wanted him to do with it.

The apostle Paul echoed this teaching in 1 Timothy 6:17-19: “Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life.”

Paul is speaking to the “rich in the present age.” That’s you and me. When 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day, we are the rich. Paul tells us three things:

First, “not to be arrogant.” The rich fool was arrogant. He thought what he had was his for now and forever. He learned quickly he was wrong. The Scriptures declare God owns everything (cf. Deut. 10:14). That includes your house, your bank account, and your 401K.

Second, “not…to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God…” Wealth is uncertain. There have been 11 recessions since 1948. One hits about every 5 years. If you put your trust there, you will be disappointed.

But God does not disappoint. He can be trusted. And Paul reminds us it is God who gives us everything to enjoy. And because he can be trusted we can be “generous and willing to share” so that we might “take hold of what is truly life.” Generous people, Paul says, find life.

So Scrooge-Proof the holidays this year. Let me suggest three places you can be generous: You can be generous to someone in a foreign country. The Wise Men did. They helped Joseph, Mary and Jesus with gifts that enabled them to live while in Egypt. Organizations like World Vision can show you ways to help others. For example, you can buy someone a goat for Christmas. You can do it in the name of someone here who already has all they need. I’m thinking of buying one in Josh’s name so I can tell him, “I got your goat.”  I told Karen I was thinking about getting her a donkey. She said, “Why would I need one? I married you.”

You can be generous to someone right here. Tomball is the poorest area in Texas. You can give someone time or maybe money. You can volunteer at TEAM or at a shelter. Or you can take a family from the Angel Tree and cultivate generosity and a willingness to share.

You can give to the church. Did you know that ChristBridge gives to agencies like TEAM and TOMAGWA every month? We keep a fund called our Family Care ministry to help people that are a part of our church who need a little help. We often give to people who come by – not connected to us – who are just needing help.

The help we can give through this church is only limited by the amount of money given here. About 10% of this church gives almost 90% of what is given. What if that changed beginning this season? What if we cultivated a spirit of generosity as Jesus taught us?

Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the all-time great characters in literature. But let’s keep him on the pages of a book. Let’s let the God who invented Christmas write us into his script of bringing light into our dark world.

[1] The Man Who Invented Christmas, 60.

[2] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/man-who-invented-christmas-1052206

[3] The Man Who Invented Christmas, 53.

[4] https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=42

[5] You have to turn to Acts 20:34 to find Paul quoting Jesus .

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Heart Matters 10: Embracing the Season of Giving

You might wish you could trade places with Jack Whittaker. Whittaker was a millionaire in 2002. He had made his money as a West Virginia construction company president. Now, at 55 years-old, it looked like his financial life was in good order. His net worth was about $17 million.

But his fortune increased on Christmas Day, 2002, when he won the West Virginia Power Ball Lottery of $314,900,000. Can you say “Merry Christmas”?

It was. At least for a short time. He opted for $113 million in cash and the trouble started. He claimed he was robbed more than once. He blamed the deaths of his granddaughter—who died of drug overdose—and his daughter—who died five years later—on the winnings. Within four years he claimed he was broke.

Legal problems, divorce, and struggling in business, he had turned to drinking and strip clubs. At one point he stated, “I just don’t like Jack Whittaker. I don’t like the hard heart I’ve got,” he said. “I don’t like what I’ve become.”[1]

We think hitting the jackpot would make everything wonderful. But sudden fortune can change a person. Psychologist Stephen Goldbart coined the phrase “Sudden Wealth Syndrome” to describe the effect of a sudden, giant windfall on a person.[2] Much like the four stages of grief, Goldbart and his co-workers at the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute say there are four stages people pass through as they come to terms with sudden wealth:

  1. The Honeymoon stage. Everything is new and exciting and the person often goes on a spending spree, oftentimes making poor choices.
  2. The Wealth Acceptance stage. The new found power begins to be balanced with a sense of need to set limits.
  3. The Identity Consolidation stage. By this stage the person has come to terms with their new status but begin to realize that their money does not define them. They ask “Who do I want to be?”
  4. The Stewardship stage. If they make it to this stage healthier than Jack Whittaker, they begin to think in terms of how to handle it in regards to their family and philanthropy.

David’s fighting men did not handle their sudden wealth so well. David and his men had gone on one of their fighting rampages for King Achish of Gath. Achish thought David was fighting the Israelites. Instead, he was fighting enemies of Israel.

He and his men had left their women and children in Ziklag, the city Achish had given David. When they returned from battle they found that the Amalekites had raided the city. They looted it and took the women and children captive. All that was left was the smoke from the rubble.

The six hundred men at first lament. Then they lash out. Not at the Amalekites but at David. “David was in an extremely difficult position because the troops talked about stoning him” (1 Samuel 30:6).

So much good had happened in the wilderness. David led, he prayed, he mentored his men and their families in the ways of God. They were schooled in the ways of holiness over time. Spiritual formation is a slow process. And then a disaster strikes and appears to wipe out the strides in righteousness they had taken. The men want to stone David.

Hard times can bring out the worst in people. Churches are not immune. That’s why a group can journey together for some time, sitting in classes and joining in worship, being schooled in the ways of holiness over time. And then a rough season comes and people turn on each other. It may not be the way it should be. But it is the way it is. Spiritual formation does not happen overnight and some of its best lessons come with adversity.

Hard times can bring out the best in people too. David had not inquired of God concerning the fighting he was doing that got him in this jam. But he did turn to God now. “But David found strength in the Lord his God” (1 Sam. 30:6). Don’t judge him too quickly. Don’t we do the same? We forget to call on the Lord until we find ourselves in a mess of our own making?

If you can relate and if you’ve ever felt a twinge of guilt for doing so, don’t. What matters in this story is that David did turn to God. When the exterior world falls apart it is time to turn to the interior world that has been neglected. When David turned to God, along with Abiathar the priest, he asked him if he should pursue the attackers and if he did would he overtake them.

God gave the go-ahead directive and David’s men redirected their anger towards the enemy. They don’t know where the Amalekites are, but they know their families are captive, so they set out to find them.

After marching south for fifteen miles they come to Brook Besor. The creek feels cool on their hot feet. They were all weary. But two hundred of them were done. “…two hundred stopped because they were too exhausted to cross the Wadi Besor” (1 Sam. 30:10).

Too exhausted to rescue your own family? It happens. People get weary of life. Once they were full of energy. Now they’re full of fatigue. Age slows you down a step or two. Unfulfilled dreams can suck the life out of you. Sometimes people need to sit down and rest while others move ahead in the battle.

Two hundred did that day. They stayed at the Brook Besor.

Four hundred went ahead with David. They didn’t know where they were going, just that God had promised they would overtake the Amalekites. Then “David’s men found an Egyptian in the open country and brought him to David. They gave him some bread to eat and water to drink” (1 Sam. 30:11).

The Egyptian had been a slave of one of the Amalekites that had raided Ziklag. David hit the jackpot. David had been where this man had been. In need. Hungry. Thirsty. He’d received grace from others and now extends grace to the Egyptian. When we live life right, this is how we live it. We experience grace from God and pass our grace experience on to the people we encounter.

Because they were friendly to the Egyptian, fed him, and nursed him back to health, he was willing to spill the beans on where the enemy could be found. While the Amalekites were partying with their plunder, David and his men pounced on the Amalekites like a lion on a gazelle. Some bit the dust. Some hit the trail. But David and his men recovered everything that had been stolen. Not a wife or child was lost.

The men that wanted to stone David were now ready to give him a star on the walk of fame. “…the people shouted, ‘This is David’s plunder!’” (1 Sam. 30:20).

That sentiment did not last long. Once they retrieved the families and loot they returned to the Brook Besor. Imagine some of the discussion along the way:

Wives: “I don’t see my husband. Where is he?”

Rescuers: “Well, you see, it’s like this. He stayed at the Brook Besor.”

Rescuers: “Come to think of it, they did nothing to deserve some of the spoils. They didn’t do any of the work.” The thoughts began to fester and spread through the ranks.

You: I’ll let you fill in the blank here. How would you respond?

I’m not sure what I would have done. But I know what these men did. “… all the corrupt and worthless men among those who had gone with David argued, ‘Because they didn’t go with us, we will not give any of the plunder we recovered to them except for each man’s wife and children. They may take them and go’” (1 Sam. 30:22).

Sudden fortune can change a person. These men who were ready to stone David only found wealth because of David. These men who had nothing to begin with were suddenly hoarding what they had been given. These men who had no clue where to find the enemy until God graciously led them to the Egyptian now wanted credit for the victory.

And what happened to “this is David’s plunder!”? Now they act as if it is theirs to decide who receives a portion or not.

Jesus told a story about some workers in a vineyard. Some started early in the day for an agreed upon wage. Others came along at 9 a.m., then more at noon, still others at 3 p.m. and the final crew at 5 p.m. At the end of the day they all received a full-day’s wage.

Try that at your workplace and watch the fireworks begin.

The workers who had started the earliest did what any thankful, grateful for work person would do. “They began to complain…” The landowner asked them: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I’m generous?” (Matthew 20:15).

The workers quickly forgot who gave them their wage. And David’s men quickly forgot how they had received their wealth. But David did not.

But David said, “My brothers, you must not do this with what the Lord has given us. He protected us and handed over to us the raiders who came against us. Who can agree to your proposal? The share of the one who goes into battle is to be the same as the share of the one who remains with the supplies. They will share equally.” (1 Sam. 30:23-24)

Notice two things David does. First, he reminds his friends that it was the Lord who had given them what they had. He doesn’t berate them. He gently but firmly reminds them.

And secondly, he gives grace to those that stayed at the Brook of Besor. Not only do they get to share equally in the plunder. He affirms their dignity by speaking of how they “remain[ed] with the supplies.” We are to share the grace that has been given us.

God had treated them with a great and generous grace. David made sure they treated each other with a great and generous grace too. There may have been a man or two who ducked his head and muttered, “I don’t like what I’ve become.”

The story of Jack Whittaker may cause you to wish you had the opportunity to handle sudden wealth better than he. The story of the “corrupt and worthless men among those who had gone with David” may move you to dream of having that kind of plunder to ponder.

You do, you know. Paul wrote of the “incalculable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Paul says we can’t measure the riches. We can’t calculate the riches. But in Ephesians he tries. Here are just ten things he mentions there to get you started:

  • We have been chosen
  • We have been adopted
  • We have been redeemed
  • He has revealed his mystery to us
  • We have an inheritance
  • We have hope
  • We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit
  • We have salvation
  • He has made us alive
  • He has seated us with Jesus in the heavenly places

And that’s just ten! What we have in Christ is more valuable than any Power Ball or Amalekite bounty, what we have in Christ is priceless. It is ours by grace, not anything we have done on our own merit.

And it is to be shared. It is to be shared with those who are tired and weary. With people who have stopped while you kept going. With people who’ve been sick while you remained healthy.

In this world we need the Brook Besor. A place we can rest when tired. A place where, when we come upon others who are there in need of rest, we can share what we have received in Christ. We tend to share grace in direct proportion to the amount of grace we understand we have received.

The gracious God who came to us as a child will continue his generosity through those who have learned to rest in him and learn his ways. That’s his invitation. And that’s his promise.

So rest in his grace when you need to. Find your Brook Besor where you can remember who gave you what you have. Then God will show you how to share with other fellow warriors who have taken a break. His riches are the ones you want.

When you know where they come from and you share them, I’m certain you’ll like what you become.

[1] http://time.com/4176128/powerball-jackpot-lottery-winners/

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/irvin-g-schorsch/sudden-wealth-syndrome_b_1652701.html

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Heart Matters 9: Real Life. Real Church. Real God.

It’s our culture to keep looking for something better.

  • Sign up with one energy plan and within a year you’re getting solicited with promises of a better deal.
  • You look for a credit card and compare endless options for the one that will give you the better deal: more airplane mileage, better interest rate (which would not matter if you pay it off each month) or more money back.
  • Even high end retailers like Neiman Marcus have found that their old model of regularly raising prices is not working.[1] Their customers are looking for a better deal.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the culture of the world has impacted the culture of the church. People shop for churches like they shop for cars:

  • They’re looking for a particular make or model in the worship style, preaching, or ministry to kids.
  • They peruse the internet to see who promises the most: “not your grandmother’s church,” “we offer both traditional and contemporary services,” or “we preach the Word of God” (Well, let’s hope so). One I saw recently claimed: “Our church is prayer-conditioned.”

Once a shiny new model is selected it doesn’t take long before the first scratch or dent is incurred. A worship set doesn’t go as planned. The preacher is a little off his game. Someone does or says something that offends. And it’s off to search for a better deal once again.

I know. I’ve wanted to search for a better deal myself some days. There are times I get so frustrated with the preacher that I want to look for another one. Then it dawns on me that if I were to go somewhere else he’d be there too.

And come to think of it, if you adopt a consumer mentality towards church—looking for that perfect place that lives up to its own hype—you will take yourself with you and your own set of issues will follow. What can we do to understand ourselves and church in a consumer culture?

We can watch David. David teaches us that heart matters. And his story shows us that real life, real church, and a real God can be found in the wilderness.

The wilderness is what causes most people to look for the better deal. It’s true that sometimes you may need to leave a church. The preaching is more pop psychology than strong theology. The music is more “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentimentality than psalm-like heart cries. There are a number of reasons it might be good to make a church change.

But more often than not it is the wilderness that causes our restlessness. David spent about ten years of his life there. Ten years! That’s most of his twenties spent in a place where he had to run for his life and scavenge for food. He knew the experience of Survivor before it was a TV show.

Be truthful. Is that something you’d sign up for knowingly? Ten years of wandering in a wilderness, unsure of what God is doing in your life? You know he’s called you. You answered that call and made a commitment. But now you find your life thrown upside down.

The wilderness can do a number on you. It did for David. He was a wilderness expert. He tried out every one available to him: the wilderness of Ziph (1 Sam. 23:5; 26:2), of Maon (1 Sam. 23:25), of En-gedi (1 Sam. 24:1), and of Paran (1 Sam. 25:1).

They are all harsh and cruel and arid and unpopulated. But they are not all the same. Their tests and temptations vary. The wilderness is both a real place in the Bible and also a metaphor for our lives. We all find ourselves there at some point—maybe several points—in our lives. We want safety, security, and an ordered life but then something happens we did not plan or someone attacks us and we run for cover. When we pause long enough we find we are in the wilderness.

Most people react by trying to escape the wilderness. David shows us that we can embrace the wilderness. We might as well learn to embrace it because the wilderness is where real life is found.

Good things can happen while there. David found work as a protector of the marginalized. He and his men watched out for the shepherds and farmers of the area that were routinely vandalized by bandits. He found beauty there in the person of Abigail. We all experience good and beauty in our days, even in the wilderness.

But he also found evil in the wilderness. He could not escape it. Saul chased him there. He hid. He ran. He fought back at times. And early in his wilderness decade he was alone. You’ve experienced all of these. A harsh work environment. Running from a bad relationship. Hiding from your past. And you’ve had periods of loneliness.

That is normal. You are not abnormal to experience the wilderness. David did and you and I will too. And our instinct will be to escape it. We will feel pain and loneliness and we will not want to embrace that. And yet, to find real spirituality as an earthy Christian, we have to learn how to sit with our own pain.

But we don’t have to sit alone. One place David tried to find refuge was with King Achish. He was the Philistine ruler of Gath (1 Sam. 21:10-15). Yes, that Gath, the breeding place for giants. You’ve got to wonder what David was thinking. Don’t be too quick to judge. How many crazy ideas have we attempted when we are alone in our wilderness?

David found quickly that Achish was not his friend even though they had the same enemy. So David acted like he had gone mad and holed himself up in the cave of Adullam. He wasn’t alone for long:

So David left Gath and took refuge in the cave of Adullam. When David’s brothers and his father’s whole family heard, they went down and joined him there. In addition, every man who was desperate, in debt, or discontented rallied around him, and he became their leader. About four hundred men were with him. 1 Samuel 22:1-2

The wilderness is where the real church is formed. It wasn’t the pick of the litter either. If you were looking for a better deal, this would not have been it. It was the Triple D church: desperate, in debt, or discontented. Those who embrace their wilderness would fit right in. Those who try to escape it would not.

In addition to these we find “his brothers and his father’s whole family.” Jesse and the brothers who forgot David when Samuel came for a visit. Eliab and the brothers who ridiculed David when he showed up at the army’s campsite. David had to wonder why they showed up.

But they did. Most likely they were under fire from Saul too as relatives of David. They and the Triple D’s gather around David and spend a decade in the wilderness with him. They ate together, prayed together, fought together, foraged together.

They became the church, God’s people, in the wilderness. The word “Hebrew” likely was not an ethnic designation to begin with. It described drifters that were despised and were on the margins of the Middle Eastern cultures.[2] It is these who became God’s people in the wilderness with David. They are “a people defined not by where they came from or what they did but by what God did in and for them.”[3]

Imagine being with this group. No doubt you would be disappointed by them. They are untrained. They are not the cultural elite. No philosophically sophisticated people in the group. You enter a building looking for God and find this gathering of people. People with their own issues. Needing help. Messed up finances. Not happy about their own lives.

It’s the kind of group that causes people today to say “I love God, but I hate the church.” So we try to photo-shop the church. Find a catchy slogan. Promise something better than the other churches in the area. Improve the stage lighting. Get a fog machine.

Instead of being honest. How can we improve the image of David and his group of mighty men? Or Jesus sitting around a table of crooks and prostitutes? You can’t make it look like anything other than what it is. And you shouldn’t. This is the church. Paul wrote:

Brothers and sisters, consider your calling: Not many were wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world ​— ​what is viewed as nothing ​— ​to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one may boast in his presence. It is from him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became wisdom from God for us ​— ​our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, in order that, as it is written: Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. 1 Cor. 1:26-31

Real life is the wilderness. The real church is formed in the wilderness. And the real God is found in the wilderness. He’s there. We don’t always turn to him or acknowledge him. David certainly did not.

David struck a deal with Achish. “…let me be given a place in one of the outlying towns, so I can live there. Why should your servant live in the royal city with you?” (1 Sam. 27:5). Did you hear that? David calls himself a “servant” of the enemy king!

Achish gives David Ziklag with the condition that he turn against his own people and kill them. David goes out on raids, but instead of the Israelites he attacks the enemies of the Hebrews. Achish is none the wiser.

This isn’t the greatest stretch of David’s life. He lies to the king. He covers his deceit with bloodshed. This goes on for the last sixteen months of his wilderness experience. He is so weary of his life situation running from Saul that he finds a common cause with the Israelite’s main enemy: the Philistines. During this time there are no psalms written. He has no inspired verses. No plucking of the strings on his harp.

We can talk about how David did not pray and how we should pray when we are in the wilderness. And yes, we should.

We can talk about how David outsmarted Achish and manipulated him for his own purposes of defeating the enemies of Israel. He’s not ethical. But he is a hero.

But something else is happening here in the wilderness. We have a story that is not about David’s bad morals or his clever ideas. Look closely and we’ll find a story about God. The real God is found in the wilderness. He is with David every step of the way working out his purposes in David’s life.

David is just doing what he has to do to survive in a place and situation that is not conducive to what we usually think of as the “spiritual life.” David works a deal in the culture he is in to get by. The storyteller does not say this is the right thing to do, just that this is what David does. And in these conditions—where David is in a hard place and isn’t making the best of choices—God is with him and God is working out his purposes in his life.

David is not the center of the story. And neither are we. God is. Eugene Peterson reminds us that “The primary concern of the spiritual life isn’t what we do for God but what God does for us.”[4] His purposes are being worked out most powerfully when we are least aware of them. Even when we aren’t paying attention to God, he is paying attention to us.

Even when we find ourselves in the wilderness in Ziklag with people who are not what we expected when we became a Christian. But that is what we find. Real life. Real Church. A real God.

David found the same. And then, at the end of this ten year—sixteen month stay in Gath and Ziklag, we read: “But David found strength in the Lord his God” (1 Sam. 30:6).

His wilderness days were over. And yours will be too. So don’t escape the wilderness by looking for something better. Embrace it. You may be right where God wants you so he can work out his purposes for you.

[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/neiman-marcus-finds-even-wealthy-shoppers-want-better-deals-1492362386

[2] Peterson, 95.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Peterson, 99.

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